Space | 30. October 2023 | posted by Ulrich Köhler

New, first destination for the Lucy spacecraft – a visit to Dinkinesh, 'you are marvellous'

Vorbeiflug der Raumsonde Lucy am Asteroiden Dinkinesh
On 1 November 2023, NASA's Lucy spacecraft will fly past the asteroid (152830) Dinkinesh, which is only approximately 760 metres across, at a distance of 425 kilometres. During the flyby, the targeting system for the scientific experiments will be tested, but the spacecraft will also acquire images and perform measurements (artist's impression).

Almost exactly two years ago, NASA launched the Lucy mission with a new and unusual task in the exploration of the Solar System. From 2027 to 2033, the spacecraft will investigate a number of asteroids referred to as 'Trojans', which lie 60 degrees of arc ahead of and behind the planet Jupiter on its orbit around the Sun. This time, Lucy is not, as is so often the case, an abbreviation for a string of technical terms, but the naming of the mission after a fossil link between upright walking apes and the first humans. Figuratively speaking, this mission, as so often with the study of asteroids, is about better understanding the earliest days of the Solar System. How did molecular chains, then dust and gas, and, soon after, the first planetesimals finally form the planets of the Solar System more than four and a half billion years ago? For now, however, Lucy is being steered past a 'conventional' asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.##markend##

Lucy, 'the original', is part of a hominid skeleton, the early human so important for evolutionary research, which was found in Ethiopia in 1974. Its discoverer, Donald Johanson, and his excavation team named the find 'Lucy' in reference to the popular Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (which was playing on a cassette recorder at the spontaneous discovery party in the evening), because the find is the skeleton of a young woman. In the Afar Plain, the place of discovery, Amharic is spoken, and in this language Australopithecus afarensis was given the name 'Dinkinesh', which means 'you are marvellous'. Dinkinesh is now also the name of a 700-metre asteroid discovered in 1999, not by chance of course. It will be the first 'marvellous' flyby target of the Lucy spacecraft on 1 November 2023.

(152830) Dinkinesh is approximately 760 metres across and located in the inner main asteroid belt. Spectral measurements with various Earth-based telescopes indicate that Dinkinesh is an S- or V-class asteroid with a significant silicate mineral content.

The Lucy team at DLR is looking forward to the Dinkinesh flyby

Dinkinesh is the smallest object in the main asteroid belt to be observed at close range by a spacecraft. The flyby distance will be 425 kilometres, giving the experiments on board Lucy excellent observation opportunities. For example, craters only 35 metres in diameter will be visible. During the flyby, the spacecraft will be able to observe 50 percent of the asteroid's surface, which corresponds to an area of approximately 0.75 square kilometres. The DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin is heavily involved in the mission from a scientific point of view. Stefano Mottola is Co-Investigator in the mission's science.

The asteroid Dinkinesh was only added to the mission as an additional target after the launch of the Lucy spacecraft. It will be the smallest of the 10 asteroids observed during the mission. Since the approach and flyby geometry is quite similar to the flybys planned for the rest of the mission, it provides an excellent test situation for 'targeting' the asteroids and utilising the instruments.

In addition to its general duties in the science team, the Institute is responsible for a wide range of tasks, such as the international coordination and implementation of ground-based astronomical observations of the target asteroids with telescopes. The light curves obtained in this way provide initial clues about the properties of these asteroids. The astronomical data can also be used to create initial models of the shape and rotation rates of the small bodies and to refine plans for flybys of these asteroids. Once the measurement data is back on Earth after the flybys, Stefano Mottola and his team will create 3D models of the bodies and derive further data products for scientific evaluation from the image data acquired by the mission. This will also be done for Dinkinesh, as well as for (52246) Donaldjohanson, which is the next flyby target in the asteroid belt.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Lucy is a NASA Discovery class mission with the objective of studying eight 'Trojan' asteroids on the orbit of Jupiter. It will also observe two asteroids, Dinkinesh and Donaldjohanson, in the main asteroid belt during close flybys. The launch took place on 16 October 2021 from Cape Canaveral. The mission is initially planned to last until March 2033.

Stefano Mottola is particularly interested in the evaluation of photometric light curves of the target objects, that is, the measurement of the reflectance properties of the surface material as a function of the wavelength and the angle of incidence and reflection in both visible light and the near infrared.

New target and revised, but scarcely changed course

(152830) Dinkinesh, as it is officially known to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), was discovered in 1999 using a telescope in the US state of New Mexico in the course of the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project. This is named after the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, which was set up to search for near-Earth asteroids. Later, the asteroid, provisionally named 1999 VD57, was also observed using the Very Large Telescope operated by the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) in Chile, and the calculation of its orbit around the Sun was refined.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The targets of the Lucy mission are Jupiter's 'Trojan' asteroids. These asteroids move in the same orbit as Jupiter around the Sun and form clusters of small bodies at two of the five Lagrange or libration points, where the gravitational forces of the Sun and the planet cancel each other out. They may have a different origin than the asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. This image shows the 'Trojans' 60 degrees behind Jupiter around point L5, Jupiter itself and the asteroid cloud 60 degrees in front of Jupiter with the 'Greeks' around point L4.
Credit: Lockheed Martin
The Lucy spacecraft shortly before launch. It had a launch mass of 1500 kilograms and can generate 504 watts of power at the distance of Jupiter's orbit, using two solar panels, each 7.3 metres in diameter.

The small asteroid became an additional first mission target for Lucy, instead of the asteroid (52246) Donaldjohanson, through calculations performed by Raphael Marschall at the Côte d'Azur Observatory in Nice, who is a member of the Lucy team. After looking at half a million asteroid orbits, Marschall realised that 1999 VD57 could be reached by Lucy with very minor orbital changes. On 25 January 2023, the Lucy team selected 1999 VD57 as an additional flyby target for the mission. On 6 February 2023 the IAU gave the asteroid a name associated with 'Lucy' at the suggestion of the Lucy team.

With a distance from the Sun varying between 291 and 364 million kilometres, Dinkinesh moves in a highly elliptical orbit inclined at 2.09 degrees to the ecliptic (the orbital plane of Earth around the Sun). It takes Dinkinesh three and a quarter years to complete one orbit around the Sun, and its rotation period is just under 53 hours. With an albedo of 40 percent, Dinkinesh is a fairly bright asteroid, belonging to the class of silicate-rich S-types (the second most common group of asteroids at 17 percent) or the rarer V-types (named after the second largest asteroid, Vesta, and similar to the S-types).

The asteroid Dinkinesh.
Credit: SWRI/DLR
After its launch in 2021, Lucy will gain momentum for its journey through the asteroid belt to its destination, the Trojans in Jupiter's orbit, by performing two close fly-bys of Earth, referred to as gravity assist manoeuvres. Before that, Lucy will pass the asteroids Dinkinesh on 1 November 2023 and Donaldjohanson in April 2025. In 2027, the spacecraft will arrive at the Trojan asteroids that orbit ahead of Jupiter at Lagrange point 4, the 'Greek camp'. In 2028, Lucy’s path leads it back to Earth, where the spacecraft will be steered towards the Trojans at Lagrange Point 5, the rallying point of the ‘Trojans’ besieged by the Greeks.

Higher precision when targeting thanks to new technology

Lucy first imaged its new target on 3 September 2023, by which time the spacecraft had already travelled almost 60 million kilometres. These images were mainly for improved navigation during the close flyby. To get close to Dinkinesh, after analysing the data and programming the spacecraft, a small corrective manoeuvre was performed on 29 September, changing the speed of the spacecraft by just six centimetres per second. This will bring Lucy within the planned 425 kilometres of Dinkinesh. On 16 October, Lucy was only 4.7 million kilometres away from Dinkinesh. Since the asteroid is also moving around the Sun, Lucy will have to 'chase' Dinkinesh for another 25 million kilometres at a slightly higher speed, so to speak, before the actual flyby takes place. At the end of October, if necessary, another fine-tuning for the close flyby could have taken place. The fact that the spacecraft and its target were obscured by the Sun for a few days from 6 October onwards and radio communication with Lucy was not possible during this time made planning a little more difficult.

Credit: Johns Hopkins/APL
Lucy's camera is named L'LORRI (Lucy Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) and is almost identical in construction to the LORRI camera flown on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and its moons. The mirror for collecting the little sunlight reflected by the Trojan asteroids has a diameter of 20.8 centimetres and the focal length is 262 centimetres. This can be used to resolve a crater 70 metres in diameter from 1000 kilometres away (or, as the designers from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University wrote, "identify a fly on the goal beam from the opposite end of the field").

There were good scientific reasons for adding a flyby to Lucy's grand, complex tour of the outer Solar System. For NASA, however, the technical aspects provided the more important arguments. From a research perspective, the team hopes to use Dinkinesh to study an interesting link between the larger objects of the main asteroid belt, which were also visited by previous missions, and the near-Earth asteroids. The main task of the flyby, however, is an early test of the instruments and the procedures for the experiments, as well as a first dress rehearsal of the Terminal Tracking System (TTS). This is because the flyby and illumination geometry of Dinkinesh will be similar to that of flybys later in the mission.

Credit: NASA/Goddard/SwRI/Johns Hopkins APL
The first image acquired by NASA's Lucy spacecraft of the main belt asteroid Dinkinesh (small dot outlined in yellow), the first asteroid the spacecraft will visit on 1 November 2023 on its 12-year journey of discovery. The image was acquired when Lucy was 23 million kilometres from the asteroid. The brightest star in this field of view is HD 34258, a magnitude 7.6 star in the constellation Auriga, which is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. At this distance, Dinkinesh is approximately 150,000 times fainter than the star.

Later in the mission, the TTS should make it possible to improve the automated targeting of the much more distant asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit by using the image data during the approach. This 'improved targeting', which has not previously been technically possible, should lead to a better image and data yield because it is more 'targeted'. The exact position of small bodies such as asteroids cannot be accurately determined with telescopes from Earth for close fly-bys, and real-time correction of the orbit is of course impossible due to the long transit times of the radio signals. In previous missions, the instruments were therefore programmed to simply cover a large area in the hope that the target would then be well captured in at least some of the images. However, aiming 'into the blue' (or, of course, 'into the black' in space) led to many unnecessary images and thus to the loss of valuable data storage capacity. A successful test of the TTS would be a huge step forward for further planning during the course of the mission and for future missions.

After Dinkinesh, Lucy will pass yet another target in the main asteroid belt on 20 April 2025 – the four-kilometre asteroid (52246) Donaldjohanson, named after Lucy's discoverer, Donald Johanson, who celebrated his 80th birthday on 28 June 2023 – and, as can easily be made sense of from what has been explained above, that was no accident either …

More information:


L'Ralph is Lucy's 'dual camera' comprising a visible-light colour imaging instrument (Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), 0.4 to 0.85 microns) and a near-infrared spectrometer (Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), 1.0 to 3.6 microns). LEISA will search for the absorption bands that serve as 'fingerprints' for various silicates, ices and organics likely to be on the surface of the Trojan asteroids. MVIC will take colour images of the asteroids and help determine their activity.
Credit: NASA/ASU
L'TES is Lucy's thermal emission spectrometer. This infrared spectrometer performs measurements at wavelengths between six and 75 micrometres and will allow the Lucy team to determine the thermal inertia of the observed asteroids; that is, how well the bodies store heat, which will provide information about the composition and structure of the material on the asteroids' surface.

About the author

Ulrich Köhler is a planetary geologist at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof. He has been with DLR for more than 30 years, but he is already 'late middle-aged' and, unlike many a master's student, knows a thing or two about terms like Apollo, Viking and Voyager. to authorpage